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Not far from the heart of Myrtle Beach, a hidden spiritual retreat

The life of the spirit does not consist in turning away from worldly spheres of existence but in reclaiming them for the divine purpose — which is to bring love, happiness, beauty, and spiritual perfection within the reach of everyone. — Meher Baba 

MYRTLE BEACH — Just north of this bustling beach city lies a quiet spiritual retreat created more than a half-century ago by an Indian spiritual figure and one of the Grand Strand's largest landowners.

The Meher Spiritual Center includes hundreds of forested acres, two spring-fed lakes and a mile of pristine beachfront, all wedged between a Walmart supercenter, a busy highway and the small, affluent town of Briarcliffe Acres.

Karyl Tych, who gives tours of the center to new guests, calls it "an easy place to miss," and most people driving this stretch of North Kings Highway probably only notice the Myrtle Beach Mall across the street.

"It's a hidden treasure," she said. "People have no idea there are 500 acres in here."

While this spiritual retreat is markedly different from most heavily visited spots along South Carolina's coast — and is open only to those who love and follow the late Meher Baba, those who know of him and want to know more — it still faces the same kind of challenge as other destinations: how to accommodate future growth while still preserving its soul.

Meher Spiritual Center

Karyl Tych gives a tour of the Meher Spiritual Center, which all visitors are required to take. The center includes hundreds of forested acres, two spring-fed lakes and a mile of pristine beachfront. Brad Nettles/Staff

Why Myrtle Beach?

To understand why Meher Baba's home in the west was built here, one must first learn about Elizabeth Chapin Patterson.

Born to a wealthy family who lived in Chicago and New York, Patterson's father, Simeon Chapin, sold his stock brokerage firm and invested extensively in Horry County, where Burroughs & Chapin remains a major landowner to this day.

In 1931, Elizabeth Chapin Patterson met Baba in New York, during his first trip west. She became a devoted disciple and eventually followed him back to India. In 1941, Baba asked her and Italian Princess Norina Matchabelli to find him a suitable retreat home in the west.

He set five preconditions for the site: an equitable climate, virgin soil, ample water and tillable soil that could sustain a large number of people, and that the property would be donated "from the heart.”

The pair began looking in California, but many potential sites there already had been farmed. The two eventually visited the oceanfront property of Patterson's father, and she prevailed on him to gift it to her in 1944. She then deeded it to Baba, "from the heart," as asked.

Patterson oversaw the early construction at the center, seeking guidance from Baba via telegrams from India. With scarcity still a reality of war, she took a practical, economical approach.

She bought a barn in Conway, had it disassembled and reconstructed as one of the center's first public buildings. Elsewhere, a tobacco shed was moved and added to form a cabin. The shared kitchen was tiny and equipped only with a propane stove. Other cabins were built or moved to the center, where they were placed carefully to protect existing trees.

Patterson died in 1980, the same year the center opened as a year-round retreat to fulfill Baba's wish that it serve as "a place of pilgrimage for all time."

Meher Spiritual Center

Introductory material to the Meher Spiritual Center is available at its Gateway office, where visitors start their tour. Brad Nettles/Staff

Who was Meher Baba?

Born in 1894, Merwan Sheriar Irani began his spiritual transformation as a teenager, and by 1925, he made a vow of silence that he would maintain for the rest of his life. "You have asked for and been given enough words," reads part of his universal message. "It is now time to live them."

His early disciples gave him the name "Meher Baba," or "compassionate father," and he used a board with letters, then solely gestures later in life, to communicate.

He visited the center in 1952, 1956 and 1958, and the small brick house where he stayed is one of the best preserved places on the property. It's open only for two hours at a time four days a week.

Baba's following in the western hemisphere grew during the 1960s, partly because of that decade's hippie psychedelic scene. (One follower, rock star Pete Townsend, paid homage to him in Rollling Stone and in one of The Who's best known songs, "Baba O'Riley," named after Baba and the experimental composer Terry Riley.)

But Baba did not condone the use of psychedelics or other drugs, which are prohibited at the center. He once said, "If God can be found through the medium of any drug, God is not worthy of being God."

He gave no importance to rites or ceremonies and instructed his followers to lead simple, natural lives, according to the Avatar Meher Baba Trust. He died in 1969.

Buz Connor, who has been active at the center and who will become its executive director on Jan. 1, said Baba's followers are not looking to swell their numbers or to proselytize.

"There isn't anything to join. There's no initiation. There's no money to give. There's no prayer you have to say," he said. "It's a matter of the heart, and each person will figure that out for themselves. It's completely a personal thing, which makes it fascinating and enriching, but also puzzling."

It's difficult to pinpoint precisely how many followers exist; the center has about 5,000 households on its mailing list. As a pilgrimage destination, the Meher Spiritual Center ranks second only to Baba's residence and burial site in India. There is also a smaller retreat in Woombye, Australia.

Connor noted that followers are not asked to reject Jesus or Mohammed or any other beliefs. Many followers view their connection with Meher Baba as a supplement, not a substitute, to their prior religious views. Some Catholic priests have visited the center and are considered followers.

"If you got 10 Baba people in a room and asked a question, we'd all probably say something different," he said.

Meher Spiritual Center

The northern end of the Meher Spiritual Center has the mid-20th century house where Meher Baba stayed during his visits. The house is immaculately preserved and opened only a few times a week for brief periods. Brad Nettles/Staff

A stroll on the grounds

The center's simple, rustic buildings are typical of the Lowcountry and show little or no trace of eastern or Indian influence.

Despite their humble nature, the buildings and grounds are lovingly tended by a staff of about 20 workers and a team of about 200 volunteers. There's no sign of peeling paint, and many of the sandy footpaths are freshly raked.

"It's like a Zen meditation thing. Some people just love volunteering to do that," Tych said. "One of the things I hear on almost every tour is how well maintained the center is."

The center has about 26 buildings, most of which are concentrated in the woods on a bluff overlooking the largest lake. Standing there, one can hear, and barely see, the ocean.

Most of its 19,000 annual visitors come from a core of followers who live nearby and volunteer, as well as some who travel from other states and countries. Some know Baba well and are considered dedicated followers. Others are merely curious.

"People are asked to write a letter" if they want to stay overnight, Connor said, "but plenty of people have stayed here with little interest in Meher Baba, to be honest."

About 4,000 stay overnight each year. While guests range from small children to the elderly, Tych said many visitors are in their 50s or 60s and are dealing with a transitional phase in their life. Some are reading the German-born spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, author of "The Power of Now" and "A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose."

An overnight stay is not for everyone. The cabins are not air-conditioned, and they have limited heat. Also, visitors may have uncomfortable brushes with mosquitoes and biting yellow flies, depending on the time of year. Shovels are left outside each cabin to help guests ward off snakes.

Meher Spiritual Center

This small footbridge spans a small part of the largest lake at the Meher Spiritual Center. Brad Nettles/Staff

'A delicate walk'

The center currently can accommodate as many as 76 overnight guests at a time. It's most popular during Christmas and New Year's and other holidays when school is out. Followers don't observe traditional holidays, but Meher Baba's birthday on Feb. 25 and his death date on Jan. 31 are special days, as is July 10, the anniversary of when he took his vow of silence.

While there's often vacancy, there's also a growing demand.

"We have to figure out ways of accommodating more people," Connor said. "Some people want there to be more buildings. Some people don't want any more buildings."

The center only has added about 10 buildings since 1969.

Ann Edelman, presiding officer of the center's board, said possible expansion is something the board has spent a lot of time discussing. "It's a deep question."

One reason why the question poses such a challenge is because the center wants to adapt in ways that will let it continue to serve as a place of pilgrimage while also keeping the property much as it existed in Baba's lifetime.

During his last visit, in 1958, Meher Baba directed that the center be preserved “in perpetuity."

Its staff and volunteers must grapple with the kind of issues affecting any large landowner, from algae blooms and reeds encroaching on its lake to a buildup of undergrowth that could fuel a dangerous forest fire. The center lost about 1,000 trees during Hurricane Matthew a year ago.

Briarcliffe Acres Mayor Huston Huffman, whose town borders the center's northern edge, said the town works well with the center. Both cooperate on issues such as controlling the local deer population and managing downed trees.

“We haven’t had the first problem,” he said. "We have a number of people living in town who are members there."

So the biggest issue within the center is how much things should change here.

"Primarily we want to preserve this place, the uniqueness of this place, and part of that is the environment," Connor said. "We don't want to overbuild."

Michael Tych, Karyl's husband, said the center's main mission is to serve as a place to learn about Meher Baba.

"It's not just a place to come and hang out and ride bicycles," he said. "People come here for quietude and reflection. If you have four times as many people, you lose that."

The center's administrator, Barbara Plews, agreed.

"Meher Baba is for everyone, but the center is not. It has its retreat purpose, its focus on Meher Baba and his life," she said. "We want people to be here for the reasons he's here. It's a delicate walk."

Even if new buildings could be added without altering the center's ambiance or its natural environment, those in control want to make sure to preserve its quietude, which may be one of its biggest draws.

"Life is hard," Karyl Tych said. "For people who come here, part of it is for clarity, for solace, definitely for introspection and contemplation."

Meher Spiritual Center

The Meher Spiritual Center's library is one of the only buildings with air conditioning. It also features works written by Meher Baba and many of his favorites, such as Agatha Christie mysteries. Brad Nettles/Staff

Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.

Robert Behre works as an editor and reporter. He focuses on the historical landscape, including architecture, archaeology and whatever piques his interest on a particular day.